Saturday, March 30, 2013

International Table Top Day and Quick Reviews

March 30th is International Table Top Day in which participants are asked to go out to local coffee shops  or join a gathering of other gamers to try new games and support the hobby. This is a wonderful cause that I hope picks up steam in future years.

In celebration of this I wanted to do some quick reviews of some games that were new to me in the first quarter of this year for which I was not able to write a full review due to time constraints.

The order below is based on my expectations from highest to lowest.

Despite its contemptuous branding in the gaming community, I had heard great things about Monopoly Millionaire Deal and its older sibling Monopoly Deal. I haven't played the original Monopoly Deal but after reviewing its rules two games appear to differ on the victory condition and possibly some minor differences in cards.

I tried it with several player counts and while it works okay with three or more the main problem is on full display with two players: you don't have many meaningful decisions. That is not to say you have no influence on the game, timing is important and identifying when a "Just Say No" action-blocking card is likely in someone's hand is a fun mystery. The game just didn't seem to be as compelling as I had anticipated, although it is a good experience for what it is: a twenty minute fast paced card game.

Monopoly Millionaire Deal Verdict: 4.5 out of 10

I decided in February I had brushed off the idea of trying Memoir '44 for too long and I gave it a try. I found out I had been robbing myself of quite an experience. This was my first encounter with Richard Borg's Command and Colors system and I loved how simple and intuitive it is. It takes the sometimes laborious decision making of a tactical military operation and divides it into smaller more palatable turns ripe with the interesting decisions we all are seeking.

I'd recommend those that have not tried it specifically because of previous disinterest to check this game out at least once or twice. At the worst you will find it may not be your favorite type of game but you won't be disappointed.

Memoir '44 Verdict: 9 out of 10

I've had the opportunity this year to finally play enough Bolide to form an opinion.

While the replay-ability concern is mitigated with additional tracks, I'm still not sure if there is enough here to make it a need in every game collection. I think it is a good game whose concept is actually more interesting than the execution when it comes to the game play.

Bolide Verdict: 6 out of 10

Keltis Ór appears to remain unpublished at this time but I had a chance to try an online version. As I'm not a particularly big Keltis enthusiast or have much experience with dice games I had low expectations but I was pleasantly surprised.

Keltis Ór plays quickly and has plenty of options to weigh each turn against one another and the scoring is tense. It was an enjoyable experience each time I played it although I'm not sure if it has the long term staying power over similar dice games or even its siblings in the Keltis family.

Keltis Ór Verdict: 7 out of 10

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

SimCity: Discussion and Review

As a kid, SimCity 2000 was the first "real" (i.e., just too old for Oregon Trail) computer game I remember getting into, so it was with great enthusiasm that I pre-ordered the new SimCity (in a very iPad move, just called "SimCity"). I didn't have the chance to play it until more than a week after its release. That might have been the most serendipitous delay in the history of my video gaming career.

Much has been made of SimCity's failings in its first week, and since I never experienced them, I'm not going to beat that particular dead horse any more. The other head of the Ettin of internet rage over SimCity is its "always online" feature. I concur in part, but for a different reason. In contrast to how everyone else on the internet apparently feels, I'm intrigued by the interactivity, and I totally accept the "no city exists in a vacuum" premise of the game. (I don't at all buy the argument about using DRM to control player behavior.)

Where the "always online" feature can run into trouble is when the connection falters. Even in 2013, internet coverage is not perfect. Whether EA is having problems on their end, or Comcast decides to deliver me a hiccup in service, I can't always log in to Origin to play the game. It's a little frustrating that when an outage like that happens, I'm barred from playing the game. Worse is when the outage happens mid-game, which leads to your game instantly closing and losing whatever progress you made since you lost your connection. More sensibly, the game could make a local backup and upload it to the global game when the connection was restored, but this functionality doesn't seem to exist.

Once you're actually in the game, SimCity plays similarly to most of its predecessors, with a bigger emphasis this time around on the "region" or group of cities than just one city. Cities in the same region can cooperate by specializing: one might become a mining and drilling town, another might focus on culture and tourism, and a third might specialize in education and high-tech manufacturing. SimCity is all about identifying the optimal course to grow your town, so in many ways, it's a purer "game" than many video games like RPGs or shooters. It's filled with optimization decisions: immediate profit versus investment for the future, balancing the needs of your residential versus industrial interests, how much you can get away with taxing your businesses before they all get out of town.

Those decisions are not easy to make. Here's a representative story that well encapsulates my SimCity experience so far. I noticed that my approval among my medium-income residents was dropping like a rock, and the chief complaint had to do with how germy my town was. My favorite of the complaints was "get rid of the source of these germs NOW!" Of course, nobody bothered to tell me what the source of the germs actually was.

I eventually tracked it to a single garbage incinerator I'd installed on one of my dumps (to make my residents stop complaining that garbage was piling up). The air pollution was making my Sims sick, a reasonably predictable consequence. So I built up health coverage, but that didn't entirely solve the problem. Meanwhile, my Sims were getting less and less happy, which made them less willing to put up with the exorbitant taxes I'd forced them to pay, and it turned quite a few of them to crime, so I opened a handful of new police stations. Between the costs of health care and police and reduced taxes, my city started running at a massive loss, and I ended up abandoning the town.

In that case, I learned from my mistakes, and I'll be able to play less terribly next time. A few mistakes I haven't learned how to fix. In particular, it seems impossible to apportion the zones in your city correctly; I cover block after block of my town with residential zoning, and I still have a permanent worker shortage in my factories. And it's actually impossible to prepare for natural disasters. I'm not sure what kind of coastal city has two tornadoes run through its downtown in its first two years of incorporation, but I can't blame my Sims for not wanting to live there.

That's to say nothing of the zombie outbreak, which is the single most frustrating and debilitating disaster in the game. Though it was apparently modeled after a flu outbreak, no flu outbreak has ever destroyed 137 buildings in a single night and bankrupted a town the next day. Disasters do help to add some tension to the game, but they happen far too too frequently, and there's too little that can be done about them in advance.

Mostly, though, the challenges in SimCity seem like ones that can be overcome and that can be learned after playing enough. Despite the increased emphasis on continuous, interconnected operation of cities, SimCity might turn into a game I play more like a strategy board game, where I "play a game of SimCity" and see if I do better than I did last time, rather than "play SimCity" and continue the story I started telling before.

Though it appears at first that SimCity has little replay value, there is significant "end game" content in the very expensive "great works" buildings that can be built in cooperation with other cities in the region, and multiplayer with your friends could end up being a lot of fun as you discover new ways to specialize and synergize. SimCity had its issues, but it's worked through nearly all of them; it has its flaws, but most of its mechanics are solid enough--and there's just enough nostalgia there--that the game is worth playing.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

2013 MIT Mystery Hunt: "Mergers"

As a sort of epilogue to the Hunt, Steph and I decided to tackle one last puzzle, "Mergers," when she was in town last week. It was one that we considered trying at the end of the Hunt proper; we ran out of time back then, but after the answers were released, I peeked at the solution method (but not the answers themselves!) to make sure we were on the right track, and it actually seemed solvable.

What we did

The bracket at the bottom of the page is meant to be filled in with various words, starting from the ones listed at the top of the page. Those words are linked by common association of some sort. For example, Windy + City = Chicago. Then, the words we generated by matching needed to be paired with other words, and so on, so Chicago + Rapid Transit = L, and L + Roman = Fifty. We filled in nearly the entire top half of the bracket and made some inroads toward filling in the bottom, but we couldn't ever place "Nadia," "Information," "Mac OS X," or a few others.

What we should have done

Exactly what we did, but more of it. The biggest hangup we came across was not knowing exactly what to do with "Twenty" and "Point Count". We thought it might have something to do with contract bridge, but it turned out the answer was the much more generic "Score". Then, "Score" was supposed to match with "Nadia" to give "Ten".

Would we ever have figured it out?

Possibly. Had we wanted to devote a whole lot of time to it, we could have tried all the remaining words in combination, and we might have been able to divine something eventually. I'm not sure if we realistically would have gotten the "Ten" clue described above. Even tougher was the last connection, "Chester" plus "Age" to get "Man," supposedly a "prepend" (to get "Manchester" and "Manage"); both struck us as more than a little arbitrary.

What can this puzzle teach about good design?

The solution to puzzles should be sufficiently specific that there's only one feasibly correct answer. Even though this puzzle featured good "checkpoints" (unlike many of the Mystery Hunt puzzles), the connection between "Point Count" and "Twenty" was weak and nonspecific enough that I wouldn't have thought to link them with "score". On the other hand, "Mergers" did this very well in most of its clues: "Windy" and "City" together couldn't have meant anything but "Chicago," and we knew we were on the right track when we could link "Copper" and "Tin" together to make "Bronze".

That concludes (for now!) the series on the 2013 Mystery Hunt, but if we decide that any of the other puzzles look interesting and possible, we'll write about them here.

Friday, March 15, 2013

UrbanQuest: San Francisco

A few months ago, I stumbled across something particularly cool on Google Offers: a discount on an "UrbanQuest," pitched to me as an Amazing Race-style urban scavenger hunt. Combine my favorite guilty pleasure reality show (at least my favorite not involving Gordon Ramsay) with my newfound obsession with love for puzzlehunting, and it seemed like a can't-miss.

The premise is simple. You buy a pdf scavenger hunt from the good people at UrbanQuest, and it leads you through part of a city, generally a neighborhood (like San Francisco's North Beach, the setting for this quest) or district (like Fisherman's Wharf) or chunk of town associated with some landmark (like Boston Common). Along the way, you visit both the big touristy attractions and smaller, more secluded places you might have missed completely otherwise.

Once you've gathered all the clues, you can use them to solve a little meta-puzzle, which will unlock a word or phrase. And when you put that word or phrase into the UrbanQuest website, your reward is a reservation made in your name at a local restaurant, giving you yet more chance to see the local sights.

I hadn't had an occasion to run the quest I bought until last week, but I was so excited by the concept that I immediately volunteered to playtest UrbanQuest's unreleased quests. I can't go into the details of what I tested, but I'll compare the experience of running a "beta" to this one, my first "finished" quest that I had the chance to play. I decided that Steph's visit to the Bay area was all the excuse I needed to launch the quest, called "San Francisco City Link". So once she was here, we picked the sunniest day of a cloudy March week and headed into the city to scavenge through North Beach, also known as San Francisco's Little Italy. I'd been to North Beach before, of course, but I'd never spent much time in it, and I'd certainly never seen all it had to offer.

The directions dumped us in Washington Square, and no sooner had the quest started than did I learn something new about San Francisco: that little patch of green space in front of Saints Peter and Paul Church is called Washington Square. We walked around the square a bit, hit up a couple of monuments that gave us our first clues, and (in an especially Catholic detour) spent a few minutes in quiet contemplation of the gorgeous inside of the church.

From there, it was off to Coit Tower, where we tackled probably the toughest clue on the quest, a spot-the-differences that stretched across the murals inside the Tower's ground floor. We took another detour--this one more sightseeing than spiritual--up the Tower, which wasn't part of the quest but enough worth seeing that we went anyway.

An artsy Pantheon-esque shot of the top of Coit Tower

We took the back exit out of the Tower, not the one that least west toward Columbus, but the one that leads east down Telegraph Hill. What a beautiful place:

This is what it looks like walking down from Coit Tower looking out onto the Bay.

Julius Castle apparently used to be a restaurant popular with celebrities. It looks sort of defunct these days, but it's still a really cool building that I'd never seen before.

Someone actually lives here, as seen by the "private property" sign. Sadly, it is not me.

One thing that always stuns me about North Beach is its relative serenity situated half a mile away from Chinatown in one direction and half a mile away from Pier 39 in the other, probably two of the city's most crowded and overwhelming tourist areas. It was even more peaceful and isolated on the less-beaten path through the neighborhood. After stopping to grab some more clues from an art deco-style mural on the side of an apartment building and an old rusty tuba mounted outside a music shop, the quest led us to Dante's baseball mural.

We didn't get the whole story, but it seemed that Dante was a local legend and a mentor to young baseball players. He passed away in 2005, but his old players are still in the stands at the bottom of the mural. Such a nice piece of local flavor is only a block or two off Columbus, yet it's another part of the neighborhood I never knew about.

After Dante's, we headed to the Shrine of St. Francis to translate some Italian, and finally stopped at a North Beach intersection I'd walked through before but never stopped to appreciate exactly how awesome it was:

Our last clue was another spot-the-differences amongst the words that had fallen out of the books and were embedded in the ground. Then, we stopped at a local espresso shop to solve the metapuzzle, a relatively tame one (by metapuzzle standards) that involved a bit of computation and anagramming. Our reward was the reservation made in our name at the Mona Lisa restaurant, one of many Italian places nestled on Columbus. (You can choose from a list of about ten restaurants when you initiate the quest. You don't know exactly which one you'll be going to, but you get a short description, and a mid-priced Italian place that wasn't particularly fancy was exactly what we were looking for.)

I'm notoriously terrible at restaurant-picking, especially in an environment like North Beach with so many tasty restaurants so close to each other, so it was really nice to have a restaurant decided for me at the end of the day. (It didn't hurt that the seafood linguini was fantastic.)

Steph and I had a ton of fun working through this, and we were pleasantly surprised at the diversity of destinations included on the quest, both well-known landmarks and secluded buy lovely pieces of art. Our major critique was that we would have liked the quest's final clue to have taken us somewhere convenient to work through the metapuzzle; we didn't exactly mind having to duck in and grab an espresso, but in neighborhoods where streetside cafes are less common, this might have become an issue.

Compared to the playtest I did a few months ago, it was certainly more fun working with a partner, and it helped to have another set of eyes looking at the trickier puzzles, especially the intensely visual ones that require spotting fine details (and these seem to be a favorite of UrbanQuest's). Neither quest was particularly difficult from a puzzle standpoint, with the most difficult tasks requiring counting details on pictures or finding out-of-the-way signs that aren't easily spotted. The San Francisco City Link

That said, the puzzle design on both quests was very good. Constant checkpoints ("you'll pass two boats on your right," "you should see a doorway with a diamond-shaped archway," etc.) ensure that you're on the correct path, which is important (and undervalued) in puzzlehunting, and even more important when you're in an unfamiliar part of a city. Every puzzle was absolutely solvable and valued discovery more than obscure solution extraction. If you're a gamer who relished every moment of the 2013 MIT Mystery Hunt, then UrbanQuest might not be exactly what you're looking for in a puzzling experience, but it's otherwise a great experience for puzzlers and urbanites alike.

I have been nothing less than entirely impressed with UrbanQuest in all my interactions with them--even when I had a problem redeeming my Google Offers code, one of UrbanQuest's employees resolved my issue within 12 hours. UrbanQuest is a wonderful method for discovering a new part of a city, and I wouldn't hesitate to buy another quest for the next place I visit--whether it's new to me or I've been there a dozen times before, I know I'd find something new, and get the change to solve a few puzzles along the way.

A Kickstarter Experiment Part I: Managing Expectations

I've made it a conscious effort this year to take a closer look at Kickstarter, a popular crowd-funding site that has emboldened many new game designers to find support with the very customers they are trying to reach.

It should be mentioned that this emerging channel of distribution has left many with mixed results. From seemingly perpetual delays to underwhelming final production the risks are plenty but I've decided to dive in and back a few games just to test the waters. I'll provide my expectations for the final product relative to how thoroughly cooked I am expecting a game to be when I finally get to dig in for a bite.

Estimated Delivery: August 2013
Expectations: Medium Well - 8/10
As I covered in January, Compounded is a Kickstarter title from first time designer Darrell Louder and publisher Dice Hate Me Games. Compounded displayed attractive components, an interesting theme and from what I could see, numerous strategies for players to try.

I'll label this as my most anticipated title as it already has a great deal of positive momentum, a growing fan base and has a promising concept that may introduce some innovative concepts into gaming.

I don't think this game has the potential downside of the two games listed below as Dice Hate Me Games has placed a large emphasis on maintaining a quality brand and delivering on the expectations of the current following it has on Kickstarter.

Estimated Delivery: August 2013
Expectations: Medium

Speculation from Queen Games immediately grabbed my attention as speculative investment games are one of my favorite genres. I have been a Dirk Henn fan for years but I was completely unaware of this rare title published almost twenty years ago.

I'm a bit concerned as in the game play overview the mechanics seemed exceptionally simple and that can often channel the game into a moment of truth dichotomy in which it is either brilliant or bland. I've got lofty expectations but I am sure I'll reconsider the decision several times between now and when the game arrives.

Estimated Delivery: August 2013
Expectations: Medium Rare
At a price point of $15, I feel that I am risking very little to try the latest offering from Tasty Minstrel Games. Dungeon Roll offers a push your luck dice game in a quick play time. The enthusiasm surrounding this campaign is infectious as the motivation of this KickStarter campaign seems to be to provide an incredible value.

They have craftily hit a low end price point that will appeal to their core dice games audience and the "it might be worth a try" audience.

All three games are expected out in August and I'd be thrilled to see just one of them this year even after seeing how aggressively they are all pushing intended publishing schedules. I'll check back in later in the year with an update as they arrive.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

March Game of the Month: Seasons

At the beginning of the year, I resolved to expand my game collection this year. I've already made some progress toward that goal with San Juan, which was more or less an impulse purchase after a few friends mentioned I'd like it. Seasons, though, is a game I've had my eye on for a while--both Paste Magazine and my local gaming shop had excellent things to say about it, and the idea of a relatively quick, aesthetically beautiful card game is right in my gaming wheelhouse. I bought Seasons with the intention of playing it at an upcoming game night... then promptly forgot about it until far too late in the evening. Fortunately, Steph was around and up to the challenge of learning a new game.

Style and Gameplay

Seasons is a turn-based, tableau-building card game. You assume the role of a wizard trying to win a tournament and be crowned the next archmage of the game's exorbitantly high-fantasy setting. To do that, you need to accumulate the most "prestige points" (i.e., victory points), which are earned by playing cards and accumulating crystals, a sort of currency gained and lost throughout the game. And in order to play cards, you need to both increase your capacity for "summoning" and pay an appropriate amount of "energy".

Like so many card games of its generation, Seasons' clearest influence is Magic: the Gathering. As in Magic, most cards cost a certain number and color of energy to play, and cards are broadly sorted into ones that trigger once when played, trigger once per turn, or provide a constant-effect passive bonus. Add in an optional draft mechanic, and there's a lot in Seasons that Magic players will find familiar.

But Seasons isn't just a boxed Magic clone. There's a turn tracker, a score tracker, and player trackers; there are tokens, cards, and dice. As Steph pointed out, there are visual elements of a whole lot of different styles of board games represented in Seasons. The dice in particular are clever: a die roll at the beginning of each turn determines the sorts of actions that might be available that turn. It's as if the Governor in Puerto Rico rolled dice at the beginning of the round to decide which roles would be performed, instead of the players picking for themselves.

Because there are so many visual elements--and some iconography that's Race for the Galaxy-level confusing at first--it appears that Seasons has a massive barrier to entry. But that appearance can be deceiving; Steph and I went from being utterly confused to entirely understanding at least the basic rules within the span of two games. The box's estimate of an hour to play seems about right once you've gotten the hang of it, though the four-player game could last a lot longer than our two-player games did. There are a rather large number of turns--maybe an average of 15-18 per game--but since none takes very long, the game hardly ever drags.

The visual style, promised as beautiful, is mostly very impressive, with the card art in particular absolutely delightful. The production value on the dice could be better--the engraving-on-primary-colors feels very '80s. But overall, the consistency of the colors through all the visual elements is executed especially well, with a given color representing both a season and an energy type, and featuring prominently on cards that are associated with that energy type.

Analysis and Anecdotes

Seasons is one of those games that, even though you've mastered how to play, you can be awfully far from understanding the game on a deeper strategic level. During the "setup" phase of the game, you can take a pre-assembled starting deck, deal random cards to form a deck (not explicitly endorsed in the rules, but the approach that Steph and I took that seemed to work just fine), or play through a draft. Then, you split up your cards so that a few additional cards enter your hand every game "year". This is a lot of decision-making even before the real game starts, and it's a part of the game whose surface I've barely begun to scratch.

Probably the most novel element of Seasons is its turn tracker, which advances time in both seasons and years to create a nice ebb and flow of resources within a 7 Wonders-style "age" framework. The critical challenge of Seasons becomes aligning your cards--which cost certain colors of energy--with the season, during which certain colors of energy might be abundant, rare, or impossible to find. This restriction on energy ought to be the driving tension through the entire game, but we found that it's a little too easy to circumvent. There exist plenty of cards that let you subtract from energy cost requirements, gain energy from playing a card, gain energy once, etc., without paying attention to the energy "landscape" of the current season.

Closely related, another wonderfully innovative feature of the game is its variable length. The game ends at the conclusion of the third year, but based on player choices, that might come slowly or quickly. At a base level, the die roll every turn affects the temporal progress of the game. On top of that, at least one card exists that allows manipulation of the season tracker, and it's easy to envision a "rush" strategy that involves getting a few cards out quickly then moving the game to the end before anyone else has a chance to start an engine, but at least for now, the number of ways to manipulate the season tracker seems unfortunately small. Given that the variable length and season track are such unique elements of Seasons, it would be nice if there were more ways to interact with them.

I say "for now" because Seasons seems like a game that's designed specifically to expand easily. The base game already comes with a thirty-card "beginner" deck and a twenty-card "advanced" deck, acting like a mini-expansion of its own. Further twenty- to-fifty card decks could probably be released for relatively little cost but would be a facile way to keep Seasons fresh and interesting.

Overall Impressions

It almost seems disingenuous to give an opinion of Seasons having only played a few times, simply because there's so much there, and I'm not even close to understanding the strategic implications of all the facets of the game. For instance, there are a few options, like "transmute" or "choose one of two cards but at a price," that I haven't even used but are presumably in the game for some reason. That said, I am interested in learning those strategic implications, which is a good sign.

The thing I like most about Seasons already is that its complexity can be adjusted easily to match what the players are looking for. Want to play a quick game and see what you can make of nine random cards? Use the base deck and a random starting hand for each player. Want a much deeper strategic experience that you can mine for clever interactions? Use the whole deck and start with a draft.

The apparent visual complexity of the game might tend to scare away new players, but Seasons (like many games) is best learned by hacking through a few turns of it to get a feel for what all those odd symbols and pretty colors mean. If nothing else, Seasons is at least a pretty face--but I'm positive there's much, much more than that to it.

2-4 players, 60 minutes, $50 at a game shop or $37 on Amazon.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Resemblance Review: Samurai: The Card Game

In January I set out to try some games I had overlooked in recent years and I stumbled upon just what I was looking for in a discounted copy of Samurai: The Card Game.

In recent years Reiner Knizia has several of his most prominent board games into card or dice versions. Ten years after his auction / push-your-luck success with Ra, he released Ra: The Dice Game, a refreshing take on the original using dice mechanics and a nearly identical scoring system.

Dr. Knizia turned Lost Cities into his first Spiel des Jahres win with Keltis, a game that he would eventually spin off into a family of games including Keltis: The Card Game.

Samurai: The Card Game is based on one of Dr. Knizia's original tile laying trilogy and is a simplified card game version of its older relative known as Samurai.

Comparing Samurai to Samurai: The Card Game

Samurai Overview

In 1998, Reiner Knizia released what his become one of his biggest hits to date, Samurai. The game takes place on a board thematically shaped as the islands of Japan upon which two to four players lay tiles in order to surround cities and collect their influence in one of three possible types.

The three caste types are indicated by symbols of helmets, rice and Buddhas. Most cities on the board offer a single caste to influence, with several cities holding two castes and the largest city, Edo, offering all three castes. At the end of the game if you hold the most influence over two caste types you win the game. Otherwise eliminate anyone who does not hold sole leadership in one type and the remaining players count their minority caste holdings, the largest count wins.

Players play tiles in order to surround these cities and capture their influence. Tiles consisting of values helmets, rice and Buddhas played next to a city influence the matching caste type in the amount of their value. Additionally there are samurai tiles, which function as jack of all trades tiles that influence everything they are adjacent to. When a city is closed off, a caste piece is captured by the player with the highest influence in each type.

The game ends when all of one caste type are removed from the board or if four pieces are tied in the course of a game. Final scoring commences with the victor claiming the most caste support.

Samurai Analysis

Samurai introduced several innovative Knizia ideas in a single title in one of his most elegant designs to date. Samurai scales beautifully from two to four with three being a personal favorite for player count. Players must manage both their hand of tiles and the areas they are trying to influence as everyone is playing with an identical set of 20 tiles and once you've observed your opponent commit a particularly strong tile to one are of the board you can cautiously move forward with your plans elsewhere.

The key to success in Samurai is to assert dominance and then move your focus elsewhere, letting someone else close off a city for capture. The opponents action in this case is usually out of intent to capture a nearby city, but by-product or not, it rewards the patient player with efficiency. I came up with the phrase "play strong and move along" when I see this in board game design, and Samurai is one of the very best at rewarding this tactical element.

An infrequent outcome displayed for street cred 
The scoring structure of Samurai is one of the very best for creating excitement start to finish. In Samurai you've got to win at least one of the three castes, and if that means sacrificing scoring potential in the other two late in the game in a go for broke motivation, it has to be done. Scores are generally extremely close and tiebreakers are instituted frequently, and knowing this in advance ensures there is never a dull moment.

The one possible downside to Samurai is that it can pull the analysis paralysis condition out of even the least susceptible players. The game is designed wonderfully as each player has only five of their twenty tiles at any moment in order to eliminate overwhelming decision variables, but over the course of the game it is paramount to notice what tiles each person has played  in order to evaluate your own turn.

Samurai: The Card Game Overview

Samurai: TCG is an easy transition from Samurai in that it uses the same ideas in a simpler format. Players are attempting to capture the the three symbols, circles, squares and triangles. Each player has an identical deck of 15 cards, leaving out the special ability tiles used in the board game to streamline the game. Instead of the usual confines of a board, the card game will expand your over the playing surface during the game.

There is a deck of 44 cards filling the role of the cities in Samurai. Players start by dealing one card into the center of the table and taking turns playing a card from their five card hand adjacent to a city already on the board. 

Illustration A

When two an opening emerges after a player places a card, they may place the a city card from the face up deck onto the board to continue the flow of the game.

Once a city is surrounded the players with the most influence of symbols in that city capture those symbols, ties causing no capture.

In Illustration A to the left, after the green player plays the 2 card at the top of the board, scoring occurs for the center ●/■ city. The green player compares their circles influence to their opponents and finds that green's 4 (2 + 2 Samurai) influence is greater than red's 3 (the blue player can only influence ■), therefore green takes the ● for their scoring. Similarly the blue player's 4 beats green's 2 (the 2 Samurai) and blue takes the ■.

The game ends when either all of one symbol type are captured, everyone runs out of cards or the deck of city cards runs out.

Samurai: The Card Game Analysis

Samurai: TCG is a very approachable game for the casual gamer even if they are unfamiliar with the board game. It offers the same exquisite player scaling and the same cutthroat scoring system that creates the tense decisions that drive the game.

Samurai: TCG brings the "play strong and move along" aspect that rewards efficient placement, although there is often a rush in the final few turns to close off some of your open  conquests. The simpler game flow reduces the analysis paralysis as players can be more focused on capturing and less fearful about what their opponent has yet to play. It even offers an additional strategic element in knowing the next city that comes out and having the ability to determine where it goes.


I don't know why Samurai: The Card Game didn't have commercial success like several of Dr. Knizia's other spin-offs. It compacts everything I like about Samurai into a shorter playing time that can be played with casual players who may not enjoy the early learning curve of Samurai.

Samurai: The Card Game

Originality (0.75/1.0) - 
Theme (0.0/0.5) - TCG doesn't offer the little thematic elements its older sibling does
Pure Fun (1.0/1.0) - Decisions are exciting and not agonizingly painful to make
"Re-play-ability" (1.0/1.0) - Offers variety in the order cards are played

Strategy/Luck Ratio (0.5/0.5) - Players adapt and always have a meaningful decision to make
Player Scaling (0.5/0.5) - Two is strategic, four allows for some interesting battles

Parity (0.5/0.5) - Extremely close scoring, its up in the air until the very end

My Rating:
Overall 4.25/5.0 = 8.5 out of 10

I give Samurai is a 6.5 out of 10. I might even call the card game version "Diet Samurai" but it has all the flavor and none of the fat, offering a faster experience of a modern classic and a whole new menu item.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Resemblance Review: Level X

Link to Level X on BGG
A few weeks ago I stumbled across an online site called which randomly matches up online players in five boardgames, including the subject of my last review of Keltis: The Card Game.

It is likely that I would have never come across Level X had I not tried it here. It certainly has a colorful appearance and its visual artwork reminded me of a Sid Sackson classic that offers similar mechanics and experience but a different game play style.

Comparing Can't Stop to Level X

Clever integration stop sign & traffic cones
Can't Stop Overview

Can't Stop is an early 1980's Spiel des Jahres recommended title from legendary American designer Sid Sackson. Two to four players take turns rolling four dice and pairing dice together to mark progress on the board.

An example roll of (2, 3, 4, 6) can be combined into 5 (2+3) & 10 (4+6) or 7 & 8 or 6 & 9. Each player continues rolling and marking their progress with the goal of completing three columns first on a board designed to reflect the probability of dice combinations.

The primary limitation in the game is that a player may only mark progress in three columns/numbers each turn. A player may continue as long as they like so long as they can mark progress after each roll in one of the three columns they have active this turn. If the player rolls and cannot make an addition they lose all progress for that turn  and the next player begins their turn. A player may stop at any time and mark their progress, essentially "locking it in" and pass the dice to the next player.

When a player reaches the top of a column and "locks it in", the progress of all other players in this column is removed and the number/column may not be used for the remainder of the game, both creating a zero-sum race to lock up each number and making future turns decidedly less productive.

Can't Stop Analysis

Can't Stop is at its very core a game of press-your-luck and as with the other games in the genre, it is a game of probability. Can't Stop presses a player to continue on, rolling until an individual's risk aversion sets in and pushes them to finish their turn. As players are attempting to climb over one another a player whom has progressed very close to finish still has to sweat it out as other players may try  to complete the entirety of that same column in a single turn, capturing one third of their objective and destroying a near scoring opportunity for their opponent.

As a game that rewards varying degrees of aggression, the luck factor is diminished from what would ordinarily be expected. In Can't Stop, rolling high values is not necessarily better than rolling low depending on the player's progress each turn. The luck is better classified as chaos and all rolls are potentially valuable based on probabilistic opportunity on the board.

Player choices are often selected by options that are closest to the average distribution of two dice, as it is much easier to have an long-sustained turn if you are rolling looking for 6, 7 & 8 rather than 2, 4 & 11. In this way the game can become predictable in the prioritization of player choices, but it is a short game and not an issue for a press-your-luck game.

Level X Overview

Level X is a 2010 Spiel des Jahres recommended game for two to four players that shares the similar dice grouping mechanism of Can't Stop, the primary difference in Level X is that you can also take single die to mark progress (A roll of 6, 5, 5, 5 can be a 6 & three 5s or a 10, 6 & 5), thus broadening options. Players are attempting to get the highest VP score.

On a turn, a player rolls four dice, group them and moving their tokens from left to right down the path corresponding to the die values selected. Once a player reaches the "X" space they take a VP token corresponding to that number which also reflects the point value added to the player's total. The VP tokens are initially set up in quantities inversely proportional to their face value.

In Level X while any number of players may coexist on an ordinary space, the X space can only ever have one occupant. When a player reaches an X space with an opponent, they "bounce" the opponent back to the starting position very similar to the mechanic in Backgammon.

Players can earn bonuses based on number of complete sets of the six token types. The first player to collect a VP token from 5 through 10 gets a +15 VP bonus chip to add to their score. The following three sets earn +12, +9 & +6 respectively. The game ends when either all four bonus chips have been taken or three of the VP token stacks have been depleted.

Level X Analysis

Level X blends a number of interesting ideas into a fun little package. There is a racing element that rewards bonuses to the first player to grab a VP token in each of the six rows, a complete set. The second player to each X space will dethrone the first player and have additional uninterrupted scoring opportunities.

Two player Level X is a strategic pacing game as you want to optimize a first mover advantage in a row or position yourself to "reset" your opponent and gain position through a second mover advantage. Three or four players is a decidedly different battle as a great opportunity will not hold for long as players are displaced frequently and the cycle repeats more often.

The luck factor in Level X is handled elegantly as lower rolls are traditionally less valuable. Rolls of more than a single "1" die roll allow a player to revalue additional 1's and orient the die however they desire. The solution may seem strange in concept it works wonderfully in execution as it would often be a crippling turn to roll several 1's in a turn otherwise. This reclassifies a liability into an interesting strategic decision. There are enough turns for the dice to play out and although final scores are very close, luck rarely feels like a decisive factor.

The player choices are rarely as straightforward as one might expect. After a game or two I found that maximizing the value of the dice grouping and taking advantage of every die was often a huge mistake. Level X is about keeping your opponent's scoring options under control, positioning yourself with more options and pressing your scoring opportunities.


While the games are decidedly different in game type, they offer similar decisions and Level X has the more intriguing game with more diverse options and exciting player interaction.

Level X

Originality (0.75/1.0) - An elegant mixture of ideas
Theme (0.0/0.5) - A colorful abstract
Pure Fun (0.75/1.0) - Structured tense fun experience
"Re-play-ability" (0.75/1.0) - Worth revisiting when possible

Strategy/Luck Ratio (0.5/0.5) - Dice tend to even out
Player Scaling (0.5/0.5) - More players leader to more adaptive play

Parity (0.5/0.5) - Excellent, scores generally very close

My Rating:
Overall 3.75/5.0 = 7.5 out of 10

Can't Stop registers at a 6 out of 10 for me. Each game has their own style and one does not necessarily replace the other but Level X is the more interesting game with more replay value and thought provoking decisions.